The Woodstock of Birding

Red morph Eastern Screech-owl
Red morph Eastern Screech-owl

I finally feel capable of attempting to write about my experience at this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding (BW), my fifth consecutive year of attending. I hope to convey why this festival is the highlight of the year for me and so many of my nature-loving friends. Ready? Okay, let’s do this.

Oh, first I should tell you about this little Screech-owl. Maumee Bay State Park is the festival headquarters for the BW, and they have a 2-mile long boardwalk through a marsh beside the lodge. This owl roosted near the boardwalk every day, allowing lots of birders to enjoy unobstructed views. After the challenge of trying to see and photograph fast-moving little warblers high in the trees, an owl is a welcome change of pace. I saw this bird on three separate days. On one of those days I’d been standing outside the marsh alone before an event, looking for warblers, when I struck up a conversation with another birder who came along. It turned out she was relatively new to the world of birding, and had never seen a screech-owl before. So I took her into the marsh to see this one, and we enjoyed seeing some warblers while we were in there too.

Which brings me to one of the best parts of this festival: Everyone is so friendly and enthusiastic. It’s easy to be happy when everyone around you is in love with birds and nature. I imagine it’s what Woodstock would have been like — peace, love, and lots of hugs. (Well, like Woodstock if you subtracted the pharmaceuticals and added in lots of birds.) For the past several weeks my Facebook feed has been full of dozens of pictures of friends hugging each other with big goofy smiles on their faces. It’s only now starting to slow down, almost two weeks after the event ended. I’ve never been any place else in the world that made me feel like this, and that’s probably why I shed some tears every year on the last day of this festival, when I have to get in my car and head home. I just don’t want to leave that place.

My BW schedule crumpled after a long weekThis is a picture of my pre-festival tentative itinerary, which I drafted just so I would have an idea of what I “might” be doing each day–workshops I hoped to attend, friends I hoped to meet up with, and places I wanted to go birding. You can tell that many changes were made to it, right? Wow, that was crazy. For someone who normally lives a pretty quiet life, those ten days really wore me out. But in a good way. 🙂

Sunrise over Maumee Bay State Park golf course - showing fog on dunes (1024x598)
Sunrise at Maumee Bay State Park

There’s a great memory to go with this sunrise picture. I arrived at Maumee Bay Lodge early one morning to pick up a friend for a leisurely morning of photography at Magee Marsh. As I proceeded up the long drive to the lodge, the sun was just peeking over the hills of the golf course, illuminating the foggy landscape. As birders do, I slowed the car and put my window down, just in case I could hear any birds. And instantly I heard the song of an Eastern Meadowlark from somewhere out in the haze. Excited, I snapped a couple pics with my phone, and then quickly went ahead to pick up my friend Drew, wanting to share this beautiful moment with him. He barely had a chance to get in the car and I took off again, knowing that the sunrise would happen very quickly, and wanting to make sure he got a chance to see it.

He had his camera ready and jumped out of the car when I got to just the right spot. We both heard the meadowlark singing, and I slowly rolled the car along as Drew jogged down the road, taking photos at various vantage points. I hope I keep this special memory for a long time. I have to confess that, as a night owl, I haven’t seen all that many sunrises in my life. But this experience makes me want to start going to bed earlier so I can start seeing more of that beautiful part of the day!

So there were sunrises…and sunsets….

Lake Erie sunset
Lake Erie sunset

Field trips…

Field trip at Magee Marsh  - May 12, 2015 - Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
Birders at Magee Marsh

…and I feel like I’m forgetting something. Oh! The birds! Do you want to see some birds?

American Golden Plover
American Golden Plover

I normally only see plovers in distant flocks requiring the use of a spotting scope, so I was thrilled when I happened upon this single bird along the auto route through Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. I was able to stop the car and verrry slowly stick the camera out the window to get this shot. Such a beautiful shorebird!

Cape May Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler

This next bird was another special moment. I’d arranged to meet two of my friends at Magee Marsh late in the afternoon on a cold and windy day. It was the only time the three of us could be together, and we only managed to spend a couple hours together, but it was wonderful. Because of the less-than-favorable weather, there weren’t too many people out birding that afternoon, so we had lots of room to stroll slowly, chatting and watching birds.

Northern Parula
Northern Parula
Me, Kelly, and Janet at Magee Marsh on the day we saw the Northern Parula
Me, Kelly, and Janet at Magee Marsh on the day we saw the Northern Parula

It seemed that most of the birds were staying up higher in the trees this year than in past years, and so it was a real treat when this Northern Parula came down low beside the boardwalk. And not only did he come down lower, but he sat still and preened for a couple minutes, allowing all three of us to snap dozens of photos of him at close range. It was the best view I’d ever had of this pretty species, and being able to share it with two special friends made it that much better.

I think this might be getting too long already, but if you’re still here I might as well tell you one more story from this day.  And I so wish I’d taken a picture to go along with it. When I was in Texas last November for the Rio Grande Birding Festival, I had a conversation with a couple of Texans when they asked me about the Biggest Week t-shirt I was wearing. I told them all about it and gave them my blog address so they could come here to read more. I didn’t think too much more about that conversation and went about my business. So when a woman walked up to me on the Magee Marsh boardwalk and said, “Kim?”, I didn’t realize who it was. It turned out to be Pam and John, the people I had talked to in Texas! They told me that they had come to Ohio because of how enthusiastic I had been when I told them about this festival, and that they were having the time of their lives. I was so blown away I could hardly form complete sentences. By now you’ll expect that I shed a few tears. Again. I was already having a great day, but they put the icing on that sucker right then, let me tell you. I’ll never forget how I felt at that moment. So proud of our festival and so happy that they were enjoying themselves on their first trip to Ohio.

My sister and I at Magee Marsh
My sister and I at Magee Marsh

And I ran into Pam and John again a few days later when I was at Magee Marsh with my sister, and they were still having fun!  As for my sister, well, I didn’t manage to turn her into a birder, but at least she got to see this place and why it means so much to me.

I didn’t go on many field trips, but I took two writing workshops that were very inspiring. One was about how to write about conservation issues in a way that motivates people to take action, and the other was a poetry workshop.

This was my fifth year attending the Biggest Week, and it was the best yet. I didn’t attend parties or hang out with a big group of friends this time, but mostly either birded by myelf or with one or two other people at a time. And that gave me more chances to have some really great conversations in the way I relate best to people, one on one. I was able to make some meaningful new friendships and cement some I’d made in previous years. And I even managed to get a few new birds for my life list:

My seven life birds at Biggest Week 2015
From my eBird life list

 

Kentucky Warbler, one of my most-wanted warblers in the past few years -- finally!
Kentucky Warbler, one of my most-wanted warblers in the past few years — finally!

I’ll continue adding more photos to my Flickr photostream, so hop over there occasionally if you want to see more.

Just writing this has put a big smile on my face, as all the memories come flooding back. I hope I’ve been able to give you a sense of the magic of spring migration in northwest Ohio. If you have even the slightest curiosity about what it’s all about, I urge you to come to the Biggest Week next year. It might just change your life too!

Great Blue Heron seen from the kitchen window of my rented cottage on Lake Erie
Great Blue Heron seen from the kitchen window of my rented cottage on Lake Erie

The One Thing

Red-winged blackbird calling Everyone has it, right? That one thing that is your sign that spring has finally arrived. For some people it’s seeing the first bulbs poking up from the mulch in their gardens. Others might be more attuned to the day the sap starts to flow in the maple trees. For me, it’s the first day I hear the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds or Killdeer. And today was that day, so I hereby declare the end of winter. Finally. Yes, there’s still snow on the ground here in Michigan and we’ll most likely have to endure more of it before we’re through. But now that I’ve heard the calls of both of my avian harbingers of spring, I feel the weight of winter melting off my weary shoulders. Hallelujah!

Great Horned Owl in bucket 2015Today I went to Lake St. Clair Metropark because I knew I could find these birds there.  I walked the trails for a half hour, passing the marsh where the blackbirds were already trying to out-shout each other from the tops of the cattails. I visited the Great Horned Owl bucket and found one of the adults already sitting there, as expected. I went over to check out the lake and found it still frozen solid, its surface speckled with ice fishermen and their tents.

Ice fishermen on Lake St. Clair
Ice fishermen on Lake St. Clair

So I decided to drive up to Port Huron, where I knew the river was ice-free. I wanted to see if I could find the King Eider that’s been there lately. I didn’t find it, and there wasn’t much other duck activity on the river today either. I spent a couple hours driving to various little parks and viewing areas along the shore, finding only scattered small groups of a half dozen species. There were Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Long-tailed Ducks, Redheads, a few Scaup, and some Buffleheads. And the only ones that weren’t really distant were the Redheads, so they’re the only photos I didn’t have to crop a great deal. Aren’t these beautiful ducks? Just look at the golden eye on this male…and the water droplet on his back (you might have to click on the pic for the larger version).

Male Redheads on the St. Clair River
Male Redheads on the St. Clair River

Redheads are diving ducks, so they’re always entertaining to watch as they leap out of the water and dive below in search of tasty morsels.

Now you see me....
Now you see me….
...now  you don't!
…now you don’t!

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the most entertaining group of the day was this gathering of seven Common Goldeneye, five males and two females.

Common Goldeneye
They seem rather calm, don’t they? Well, don’t forget, it’s spring. And that means one thing to them: It’s time to find a mate. The mating display of this species is quite the spectacle, even for us humans. I made a video of it but something happened to that file, so I’ll just have to share some still photos.

The males display to the females by flipping their heads backward and forward repeatedly in a sort of “head dance,” as you’ll see in this series of pics:

Ah, he seems to have her attention with this first fancy move.
Ah, he seems to have her attention with this first fancy move.
Now let's show her how tall I am....
Now let’s show her how tall I am….
...and then the big finish! So baby, what do you think? Wanna date me?
…and then the big finish! So baby, what do you think? Wanna date me?

Let’s hope his efforts were enough to keep her away from his competition. (Here’s a video on YouTube if you want to see them in action.)

Here are a couple views of the river at Port Huron, looking across toward Canada:

Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario
Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario
The sculpture is called "Sugar the Iron Horse"
The sculpture is called “Sugar the Iron Horse”

Even though I didn’t see lots of birds today, the ones I saw were special and interesting. And even if I hadn’t seen any of these birds, this still would have been a great day — exercise, fresh air, sunshine and–most importantly of all–melting snow!!

I hope you’re finding time to get outdoors too. Being outside is always a good thing, but right now, at the end of winter, it’s really and truly good for the soul.

So what’s your “one thing” that means Spring?

It’s a Jungle Out There!

Oh my gosh, where do I begin? We recently spent a week birding in Panama, at the incredible Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge resorts. These two properties are very different in many ways, but share a wonderful hospitality and the absolute highest quality birding guides. I think I’ll try to break this into a couple posts, with this first one focusing on the Canopy Tower and our experiences there during the first three days of our week. Canopy Tower view from ground (600x800)

Welcome / Warning sign on gate of Canopy Tower
Welcome / Warning sign on gate of Canopy Tower

After a horrific travel day on Saturday we finally arrived at the Canopy Tower in time for a late dinner before dropping exhausted into bed in our small but comfortable room. The Canopy Tower is a converted U.S. military radar station overlooking the Panama Canal. The owner of all the Canopy properties, Raúl Arias de Para, had the vision to convert this historic property into a tourist lodge. And what a fantastic job he did. The lower levels hold the guest rooms, which are pie-shaped wedges. The rooms are very simple but quite comfortable. There’s no air conditioning, but the ceiling fans helped quite a bit with sleeping in the jungle heat and humidity.

They’ve left the barbed wire fence in place, a remnant of when this was still a military site. They say it’s not there for security anymore, but they do keep it locked at all times, so you decide. I never felt threatened or unsafe at all, anywhere in Panama, so I think it’s just for the ambiance.  It lends an element of drama to the whole experience, if you ask me.

My first morning on the observation deck atop the Canopy Tower
My first morning on the observation deck atop the Canopy Tower

It had already gotten dark when we walked out of the airport, so we really couldn’t see anything of our surroundings on the hour-long drive to the tower. So I was anxious for morning so I could see what everyone had been telling me about. And oh my goodness, what a morning it was! Howler Monkeys (800x694) I’d heard loud insect and frog calls all night long, but just before dawn I heard the first deep-throated and haunting calls of the Mantled Howler Monkeys all around us. What a thrill! I’m glad I knew ahead of time to expect those sounds because otherwise I might have been scared that there was some sort of birder-eating monster coming to get us. There’s no question how these guys got their names, that’s for sure. Some mornings they were nearer the tower, and other mornings more distant, but they were a constant presence during our stay. We were even lucky enough to see several family groups of them on our various hikes in and around the town of Gamboa.

It wasn't all about the birds -- I loved finding these perfectly-camouflaged lizards
It wasn’t all about the birds — I loved finding these perfectly-camouflaged lizards

When we arrived the first night for our late dinner, there was a group of eight or ten people finishing their meal in the dining room. They had their own guide from another tour company, but we had booked our trip directly with the Tower and we had the amazing good fortune to get one of the Canopy family’s best guides all to ourselves. I’d met Eliecer Rodriguez Madrid in Ohio a few months earlier during the Biggest Week in American Birding, when he’d made his very first visit to America. So it was a gigantic pleasure to have him lead us around his country on our first visit there. I’ll probably go overboard in praising the guides here, but I can’t help it. Eliecer was not only kind and patient with us, but unbelievably adept at finding and calling in the birds so we could see them. (I cannot believe I forgot to get pictures of myself with any of our guides!)

Golden-hooded Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager

Ok, I know you want to see what we saw, so let’s get to some pictures. This was my first time ever in Central America, so I knew that almost every bird I would see on this trip would be a new one for my life list. As it turned out, I saw 212 species of birds during the week, with 90% of them being new ones, or “lifers.” Even though we had purchased field guides prior to our trip, if not for our amazingly skilled human guides, we wouldn’t have been able to find (or identify) most of these birds. I felt as overwhelmed as I did when I first started trying to learn warblers during spring migration in Ohio. But I kept reminding myself to just relax and enjoy seeing them, without stressing about not knowing all the identifications on my own.

Keel-billed Toucan
Keel-billed Toucan. (Fruit Loops, anyone?)

Right off the bat we saw many Keel-billed Toucans and Red-lored Parrots all around the Tower. One morning I even saw a toucan from the window while I was showering! How cool is that?

Green Honeycreeper
Green Honeycreeper

The Tower keeps several hummingbird feeders stocked so it was easy to see a good variety of hummers. Easy to see them, much harder to photograph them. But I managed to get a couple good shots. I watched this Blue-chested Hummingbird sipping nectar from dozens of flowers on the mimosa tree out front. After a frustrating half hour of trying to shoot him before he moved to the next flower, I got smart and focused on one location and waited for him to come there. I felt so clever!

Blue-chested Hummingbird
Blue-chested Hummingbird

This White-necked Jacobin was one of my favorite hummingbirds.

White-necked Jacobin
White-necked Jacobin

I was surprised that we found quite a few parent birds taking food to their hidden nests, and even saw some nestlings directly. (In my next post I’ll share a picture of baby hummingbirds in their nest.) When we were birding on Pipeline Road on our first day, we saw a pair of Fasciated Antshrikes carrying insects into the foliage. We stood quietly and watched where they had disappeared, and were rewarded with up-close views of the male when he came out to investigate after dropping off his food at the nest. He popped out just above the ground only a few feet away from me. I could barely fit him in the frame and get off a couple shots, and then he flew across the trail right in front of me. I got the feeling he was upset that we were too close to the nest (which we couldn’t see), so we moved off and left the little family to their important business. That was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip though. Isn’t he a beautiful bird? Look at those red eyes.

Fasciated Antshrike papa, investigating the humans who were apparently too close to his offspring.
Fasciated Antshrike papa, investigating the humans who were apparently too close to his offspring.

And there were more monkeys. These white-faced capuchins were quite far off and didn’t stick around long, but I managed to get a shot to remember the moment:

White-faced Capuchin
White-faced Capuchin

And another of my favorite birds, the Cinnamon Woodpecker. We watched a pair of them in the trees right beside the Tower on our last day…such a treat. I really love woodpeckers.

Cinnamon Woodpecker, male
Cinnamon Woodpecker, male

This is getting pretty long (I knew that would happen), so I’ll end this first post with a couple more shots of the Canopy Tower. Every morning at dawn they provide coffee and tea up on the observation deck. The stairs to the platform are very steep, prompting the staff to put up this sign as a caution to sleepy pre-dawn birders:

Staircase to observation deck at Canopy Tower (1) (640x247)
Staircase to observation deck at Canopy Tower (2) (533x800)It sounds a bit confusing, but it’s easy when you’re doing it. I even managed to go up those stairs with my laptop opened up one day, trying to Skype with some friends back home. Unfortunately the wireless signal kept cutting out as soon as I got up on the roof, but I did manage to give them a Skype tour of the interior of this unique building. The Tower isn’t the Ritz, but I was very comfortable there and it was worth tolerating the heat and humidity just to have the experience of staying in this place. But just wait until you see the Canopy Lodge…stay tuned for part two of my Panama adventures!

Birders on the observation deck of the Tower
Birders on the observation deck of the Tower

 

 

 

Nature Photo Journal

Just wanted to share a few photos from our nature walks this weekend. Winter hasn’t released its grip on us entirely yet, but things are getting better. And a bit of fresh air and exercise always helps improve my mood, giving me a boost of endorphins in my winter-addled brain.

We saw some ducks on the pond and watched a male Belted Kingfisher flying from perch to perch, watching for a chance to swoop down and grab a meal.

Four species of ducks here, coexisting peacefully.
Four species of ducks here, coexisting peacefully (at least at the moment).
Kingfishers are Eric's favorite bird, so it's always fun to find one of them.
Kingfishers are Eric’s favorite bird, so it’s always fun to find one of them.
Male and female Ring-necked Ducks, just chillin' in the pond.
Male and female Ring-necked Ducks, just chillin’ in the pond.

We walked along the river banks, enjoying the now free-flowing water. This part of the river is very curvy, so the current is fast. There are beautiful sycamore trees here, displaying their mottled gray and brown bark and their pointy seed pods.

Sycamore bark and seed pods. I loved the heart shaped section of bark.
Sycamore bark and seed pods. I loved the heart shaped section of bark.
Sycamore seed pods decorating the tree.
Sycamore seed pods decorating the tree.
Those ducks are too far away for a good shot!
Those ducks are too far away for a good shot!

I almost walked right past these leaf cookie cutouts in the snow — aren’t they interesting?

Leaves making cookie cutter shapes in snow as they melt (2) (800x556)
I’m guessing that the dark color of the leaves absorbs more of the sun’s heat, melting the snow below the leaf faster and letting it sink down.
Oak leaves making cookie cutter shapes in the snow
Oak leaves making cookie cutter shapes in the snow

I’m trying to remember to take wider landscape shots occasionally instead of always zooming in really close, so here are some views of the scenery.

Landscapes at Stony Creek in early spring (6) (800x600)

Clinton River -- no more ice!!
Clinton River — no more ice!!
Can you see the guy fishing and his black dog on the bank?
Stony Creek lake, still about 75% ice-covered.
Stony Creek lake, still about 75% ice-covered.

Back at home I went into the woods to see if there were any signs of growth under the snow. I found 2″ shoots of daffodils and 3″ skunk cabbages. And then I found this half of a seed pod or maybe a nut shell — I have no idea what it is. Can anyone help me with an ID on this?

What is this? It's about an inch and a half long (this is a front and back view of the same half shell).
What is this? It’s about an inch and a half long (this is a front and back view of the same half shell).

Oh, and I finally was able to trudge through the remaining snow in the yard (about 6 or 7 inches) to remove the red bows I’d tied on some fir trees back in December. Up until now, access to our yard has been blocked by 4-foot-high hills of snow that the plow guy had pushed off the driveway. But enough has melted in the past few days that I was able to get up there easily enough. It felt great to pull off those faded symbols of winter, sort of like saying, “Ok winter, off you go now. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”

Aloha!

We’re halfway through our vacation on Kauai right now and my head is spinning from the beauty of this place. I don’t know how I’ll ever put it into words, so for now I’ll just share a couple photos to whet your appetite for what’s to come — IF I can force myself to get on the plane to go home, that is. The pull of the islands is strong, my friends, very strong….

Japanese White-eye, also known as Mejiro. Isn't he beautiful?
Japanese White-eye, also known as Mejiro. Isn’t he beautiful?

This double rainbow greeted us early this morning at Ha'ena Beach.
This double rainbow greeted us early this morning at Ha’ena Beach.